The Doctor is Out
It’s a Sunday in mid July. I’m on the side of a dirt hill in Monterey, California, with my dad. He’s wearing his favorite RS Taichi cap and the only pair of beige shorts I can ever imagine him in. New balances. I have floppy, androgynous hair and much hipper, smaller shoes.
We had to retire to the hotel earlier than anticipated yesterday because it was like triple digits and I was dehydrated and the infield pond really wasn’t very refreshing and it had a lot of little tiny red crustaceans in it, the pond did, and I had eaten way too many jelly beans. But today it’s cooler at Laguna Seca.
A few minutes to 2 o’clock we hear the burble and then hum of very expensive motorcycle engines that were started about 12 seconds ago, based on my approximation of our hill’s distance to the pit garages. A half mile away, where the engine sound is heard in real time, an Italian man with a puffy afro and left ear ring, both hidden under an intricately painted helmet, squats down into a vertical fetal position and shares a moment of intimacy with his footpeg – a ritual of meditation he has performed hundreds of times before and will perform hundreds of times more. He is very yellow.
After the few minutes pass, the starting lights go out, the hums turn to roars, and the race is on. American rider Nicky Hayden started out in third place and worked his way forward.
“He knows Laguna better than anyone else. Every bump. He’s the only one who uses that dip in Rainey Curve.”
My dad had been to 37 races at Laguna and ridden the track at speed on several weekends in between, making him the world’s most qualified commentator to his young audience. I don’t really remember anything about the actual race except that Hayden took the checkered flag. It was the second year in a row that he won the U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. The yellow Italian – Hayden’s rival for the championship – lost his engine near the end of the race and finished basically dead last. My dad was bummed for Mr. Yellow but contented that the American protected home soil. MotoGP is dominated by Italians and Spaniards riding Japanese bikes.
I, less nationally prideful, found no satisfaction in Hayden’s home court victory. Hayden was the enemy! He surely tampered with Mr. Yellow’s machinery. Or his team did. Put a little bit of American sand in the fuel tank! It had to have been something, Dad! Mr. Yellow does not lose! Not fair and square! He doesn’t lose Dad!
And I was half-right, because usually he didn’t. Mr. Yellow is Valentino Rossi, nicknamed The Doctor – winner of the past 5 straight world championships, most of them in dominating fashion. At this time, aged 27, he has already been crowned the greatest motorcycle racer ever. He’s won championships in four different engine classes, a feat that will never be matched. He single handedly brought Yamaha to the forefront of MotoGP, winning his first race with the manufacturer at a time when most labeled the blue bike the worst on the grid. He is Michael Jordan with Magic Johnson’s personality – the Messiah on and off the track – delivered to transform MotoGP from Formula 1’s bland step cousin into the most exciting motorsport in the world.
But Rossi struggled at times in 2006, winning only 5 races – half as many as the year prior. Laguna winner Hayden (winner of 3 races in his entire career) had some struggles of his own, and the two competitors entered the final race of the season in Valencia with the championship on the line. Rossi carried an 8 point advantage, meaning that as long as he finished near Hayden, he would continue his title streak. I watched the race in my pajamas while diligently practicing on a Nerf basketball hoop.
I find it important to note that Rossi is the best racer ever, and I’ll revisit this point a few times. He is far from the fastest motorcycle rider of all time. His qualifying performances were never especially impressive. His pole position percentage is relatively low compared to his best rivals. But during the race, the actual race, Valentino creates new advantages. He prefers to sit in second place and haunt his opponents until the final few laps, when they fall victim to his tactics and make small mental errors. He plays mind games in the media and in his professionally choreographed post race celebrations. In 2004, after closely battling Sete Gibernau for two championships in a row, Rossi “cursed” his competitor, publicly proclaiming that Sete would never win another race. He didn’t.
So it was really surprising when Valentino choked away the title race in Valencia. Rossi crashed by himself in the opening laps of the Grand Prix, leaving Hayden free to claim the championship. It was harder for me to craft conspiracies against the American this time. But I still gave it a faithful attempt.
“They messed with Rossi’s tires Dad!”
This would be the worst mistake of The Doctor’s career. On the brink of a 6th straight title, he threw it all away on an unforced error. Hayden ended the race in third place with Rossi ten positions further behind. After crossing the finish line, the American broke down crying while still orbiting the track, dropping his head to his fuel tank and sobbing the sweet tears of an impossible dream, fulfilled. Rossi, cloaked in the humiliation of a crowning failure, caught up to Hayden, grabbed his arm and congratulated him with the genuine charisma that the Italian always emanates.
“See Dad! Rossi is grabbing him! Because Hayden messed with the tires!” I screamed, surely between my own tears.
“No he’s not, Craig.”
In the face of the first defeat that truly mattered in his entire career, Valentino wore grace and humility. He was giant.
Last weekend, this being now 15 years later in mid November, 2021, Rossi knelt beside his footpeg for the final time (the 432nd time) on a sunny afternoon. He finished his closing Grand Prix in 10th position at 42 years of age.
I am the very lucky age to have grown up concurrently with Valentino’s racing career. He turned pro in 1996, before I – as well as many of his modern day competitors – was born. He first conquered the professional circuit on completely analog, often ill-tempered two stroke machines, and won his final race in 2017 aboard a motorcycle with advanced traction control, aerodynamic wings, and telemetry computers. And the most fortunate aspect of his career’s timing, for me, is that it peaked before the 24 hour media cycle and social media, a revolution that Rossi’s popularity begot once everyone had computers in their pockets. But our relationship blossomed before all that, before he had to always be accessible and available. Before I could know everything about him.
Heroes and celebrities for kids these days act like friends in disguise. They are able to put on a disguise of familiarity, digitally. Tom Brady’s posts and stories are right there everyday, right next to John and Suzie’s. They feel real, human – the most outlier-y outskirts of humanity, but still human.
That’s not what Vale was to me growing up. TV coverage was spotty back then, even for the chosen one. Whenever he popped up on the screen for a press conference or interview to speak his witticisms in bent-but-not-broken English, my dad would turn the TV volume to the maximum to celebrate the enormity of the occasion. He wasn’t familiar. He wasn’t human. He wasn’t even a superhero. At that time, he existed perfectly in the middle ground of being mythologized but still appearing enough to properly qualify as a god. And for the past 25 years, Sundays have been a day of worship.
My hair is still floppy. The Nerf hoop has been retired. I wouldn’t want to mess up my real jump shot. By now Rossi has transformed the Yamaha into by far the best bike on the grid, and he got back to his championship ways last year, securing the 2008 title.
I mentioned before that Rossi was not always the fastest rider. There are a few riders that were consistently faster than him during his career, pure speed-wise. One of them was Jorge Lorenzo.
Lorenzo is a Spaniard, 8 years Rossi’s junior, who won two 250cc titles and was then awarded a Yamaha contract to be Valentino’s teammate and heir-apparent in the 1000cc class. Lorenzo is a technician on the motorcycle, with probably the best technical form of any rider I’ve seen. He rarely makes mistakes and is consistently a pole-position qualifier. (He did crash and break both of his ankles at Laguna in 2008, but all rookies crash a lot.) Jorge has the best mid-corner speed in MotoGP, making him very difficult to pass. Lorenzo’s English is far worse than even Rossi’s, and he is stiff and aloof. Not super likable. But he’s fast.
Valentino is the exact opposite. His technique is usually far from textbook. He’s a late braker. He is average height, but that makes him six inches taller than nearly every other racer on the grid, including Lorenzo. He smiles. So it did not take long for the teammates to conjure animosity towards each other. This animosity came to a head in Catalunya, Spain, during the most thrilling race in MotoGP history.
Lorenzo and Rossi were in an extremely tight points chase in the middle of the 2009 MotoGP season. The confident, cold Spaniard had two wins so far on the season while Rossi had one lone victory, and a 1st place finish at his home Grand Prix would yield a wave of momentum for the young contender looking to overthrow the legend. Lorenzo naturally secured pole position and led the first 22 laps of the race. Rossi reverted to his classic tactics and followed his rival closely for 35 minutes. Lorenzo wouldn’t fold.
There’s a physical drama to races, motorcycle or otherwise, that is not present in most other sports competitions. The clock in a football or basketball game stops. A baseball inning is of indefinite length. But the end of a race is unwavering and absolute, waiting there as a character itself. This looming finish line determines the tactics of the competitors, as well as the audience’s anticipation of those tactics, in a uniquely suspenseful way. And Catalunya was a wonderful example of this.
The Doctor made the first move, late braking Lorenzo after the finish line straightaway and blocking the inside to mitigate his rival’s great mid-corner speed. The gauntlet had been laid down. Rossi felt he could sprint away from Lorenzo. 12 year old me was sure he would.
But Lorenzo was prideful and a gamer, and he copied Rossi’s move during their next trip down the long straightaway, emerging from the slipstream as the race leader. Rossi wouldn’t get away easily. Lorenzo wanted to take over the mantle, solidify his position as top racer. But Jorge had never raced anyone like this before. There isn’t anyone else like this to race. Heading into that same first corner, Lorenzo held the inside just as Rossi had the lap before, but the Spaniard misjudged his rival’s strengths, as Rossi wasn’t aiming to pass Lorenzo with blistering mid-corner speed. He was going to late brake him.
And just like that, three seconds after Lorenzo felt the beautiful clear air of first place again, Rossi tucked his leg tight to his bike and scooted by the challenger on the outside – just before they both turned into the first corner. Braking that late, especially from the outside position, was a huge risk by Rossi. He could have easily overcooked the corner and ventured into the grass, losing Lorenzo for good. But he’s a magician for a reason. At this point I am jumping up and down, intermittently elated and terrified, and so are the Catalan fans. In 2009, Lorenzo was the second most popular racer in Spain. Rossi, the Italian, was first.
But Lorenzo wasn’t done. He copied The Doctor’s move again on the final lap, this time cutting over on him quite aggressively after the slipstream to counter any more magic tricks. It was bold, but anything goes on the final lap. Rossi grabbed his brakes to avoid the collision and settled in behind the Spaniard. The championship points gap between first and second place in this race was immaterial this early in the season. This was purely a weiner-measuring contest, but it was hard to see the loser of this duel going on to win the title. Grand Prix rarely have more than two or three lead changes in an entire race, and the Yamaha duo just passed each other twice in one straightaway. This was primal.
One minute later, Valentino dove up the inside of Lorenzo in a right hander in the middle of the track, but he couldn’t hold a tight enough line to block his rival. The Spaniard’s corner speed shot him out past the Italian once more. Furthermore, in GP racing, almost all passes take place in 180-degree turns, and with only two 90-degree corners sitting between Jorge and the finish line, the race seemed over. Lorenzo had done it. His path to the title and world supremacy was well paved. This looked to be the end of Rossi’s reign. The grandstands, and Yamaha garage, were of mixed emotions.
The final corner at Catalunya is an open right hander. MotoGP riders take it at over 100mph, Lorenzo faster than that. It’s a simple turn and provides essentially no passing opportunities. It’s designed to help riders build speed for the ensuing straightaway.
But Rossi is a racer. The racer. He would have preferred to crash in the final turn and actually throw away the championship rather than settle for second and only spiritually squander it. He decided he had nothing to lose.
So he swerved to the inside and late bra– actually, he probably didn’t brake at all. Onboard camera footage shows Lorenzo’s front forks loading while he slows for the corner and then Valentino just blasting by him at warp-speed.
Now in front again, Rossi’s bike visibly bucked and lurched at the turn’s apex, the forebearer of a violent and catastrophic crash – the usual punishment for wrestling a MotoGP bike into a corner at too high a speed. But sometimes the bond between a god and his whispered-to footpegs goes beyond this world’s physics. Valentino kept the bike upright and pointed towards the finish line. He crossed it one tenth of a second before Lorenzo. I lost my adolescent shit.
I’ve lived that moment over and over a thousand times. It’s my favorite sporting memory ever. To have thrown caution and reason and all logic to the wind for pure competition – for hubris – and to have won.
There is a certain counterintuitive economics for motorsport’s very top racers. The title contenders. Motorsport exists as advertising, yes, but only in the packaged form of entertainment. The racer’s real boss is the viewing fan, yet his paycheck is signed by a manufacturer, and his multi-million dollar bonus is contingent upon winning the title at the end of the season. Because of these financial incentives, many top racers play smart with their points throughout the season, settling for solid finishes on some weekends rather than risking everything for the marginal points offered by wins. Lorenzo won a couple world titles by leveraging this strategy later on in his career. Some fans appreciate this responsible, suburban model to success, and maybe they go out and buy the Championship Winning machinery on Monday – and then sell it on the used market a few years later with Exceptionally! Low! Miles!
The Doctor completely rejects this conservatism. He will never cheat the fans. Most viewers don’t care about sponsors or manufacturers. Over half of them probably don’t even ride a motorcycle. But on the weekends, they can flip on the tube and watch their favorite character go through his hero’s journey in 45 minutes and claw and battle and win and even sometimes lose. And so they root for Valentino, pushing to the maximum in every Grand Prix.
Rossi indeed won the title in 2009, his 9th championship in 13 seasons, but his devout intention to race – to entertain, to toe the boundaries of possibility – brought him more attention and popularity than any responsibly managed championship ever could. Like I mentioned, many of the modern MotoGP racers are my age or younger, they themselves falling in love with racing because of Rossi, and that’s true even if you exclude the armada of young champions his Italian racing academy has produced. Numerous Formula 1 drivers cite not Schumacher or Hamilton or Senna as their childhood hero, but Rossi. He is the juvenile spirit of pure passion, untainted by bureaucracy and finance.
But it wasn’t always this rosy.
The Dark Years
It’s been a year since Cardiac Catalunya and teenage me is well plastered. The entire right side. Haven’t shot a basketball in weeks. My own catastrophic motorcycle incident. But spirits aren’t totally down. I’ve mastered wheelchair wheelies.
The MotoGP season was just beginning. Rossi won the opening round, then Lorenzo the next two. The fourth round was at Rossi’s home track – which really, every round is – but Mugello in Italy is the circuit that Valentino finds most homey.
There’s an extremely high speed chicane at Mugello. It’s a shallow right-left S turn in the middle of the track, and after a vicious high-side crash in this section during Saturday’s practice, Rossi found his right leg bones following a similar curvature.
He instantly clutched his shin in pain while he was sprawled over the ground next to his mangled bike. It was the first injury of his career, the obvious end of his title defense, and a sign to me – as I sat there with my own recently-chicaned leg – that my devotion to him was not at all symbolic. We were clearly somehow attached, umbilically. I could share his victories, yes, anyone could, everyone did – but he could also share in my defeats. He could carry part of them.
Valentino returned to racing 5 weeks later, crutching himself to his beloved, repenting to the footpeg, and then climbing aboard again. Later on in the season, he claimed victory once more in Malaysia – his trademark 46th win on Yamaha. He would be leaving the Japanese manufacturer at the end of the season to chase the young Italian dream of winning races aboard a Ducati. Lorenzo easily secured his first world title.
Rossi’s 2005 autobiography is titled What If I Had Never Tried It and while that is a reference to his initial leap of faith with the lowly Yamaha machine, it is also certainly indicative of his mentality when joining Ducati later on. The Ducati was a competitive machine, nothing like the 2003 Yamaha M1 that journalists told spooky campfire stories about, but it took a certain style of rider to really maximize it. The Desmosedici (what a name) had a very different design than the Japanese bikes of Rossi’s past. It was a V4 rather than an inline four and had a carbon fiber trellis frame rather than a traditional aluminum chassis. Australian phenom Casey Stoner experienced both the high and lows of the Italian bike in recent years, besting Rossi for the world title in 2007 aboard the Ducati, but then failing to remain in serious title contention in the ensuing seasons.
But there’s surely something emotional about that Rossa Red for any Italian. Valentino was obviously partial to it considering his flirtatious past with the more traditional manufacturer of Italian boyhood dreams: Ferrari.
The Doctor is the son of a MotoGP race winner, Graziano Rossi, so he grew up around racing, but he actually started out as a youth karting champion, and remains a speedy driver. He nearly signed on with Ferrari’s Formula 1 team, twice. In one offseason test with the F1 operation, his fastest lap was 0.7 seconds off of Schumacher’s pace. A $30 million per season offer from Yamaha kept him on two wheels then, but the Italian itch remained unscratched. If he wasn’t going to ever go to Ferrari, he had to at least try it with Ducati.
So in 2011 he joined his new team. His running mate? 2006 Champion Nicky Hayden. The American Hayden had never again found the pace that he showed five years earlier, remaining a top 10 racer but no longer a title contender. That’s what Rossi was enlisted to be, and the ex-rivals turned teammates developed a great rapport. By the end of his time on Ducati, Valentino described Hayden as his best friend in the paddock.
But the on track results didn’t go as well. Valentino had two seasons aboard the Desmosedici, grabbing only three podium finishes. He didn’t win a single race. The Australian Stoner, now on a Honda, won the 2011 championship. Lorenzo scored his second title for Yamaha the following year. It was the end of The Doctor. He was the old guard. He couldn’t win on the Ducati, couldn’t even really come close. He had lost a step, or three. My interest in the sport was dwindling. My god was mortal.
But Yamaha, old-reliable, saved the day. They owed their MotoGP life to Rossi, and he wanted one more chance. He believed that if he could just get back on his M1, he could conjure up some magic again. Yamaha couldn’t refuse him. So Rossi left the Italian team to go back home.
They made a great pair once again. In 2013, Rossi came from behind to land in second position in his first race back with his old team. Defending champ Lorenzo, sharing a garage with Rossi again, took the victory. MotoGP was back! The Doctor was back!
Valentino reacquainted himself with victory later that summer in the Netherlands, eventually finishing 4th in the championship. His friend Nicky Hayden, still on the exotic Ducati, only scored one top 5 on the season. Stoner, the 2007 and 2011 champion, retired from the sport in 2012. Lorenzo, dealing with a broken collarbone throughout the year, lost the world title by 4 points. It was now a new era in MotoGP, with a new champion – 20 year old Spaniard Marc Marquez, the fastest motorcycle rider the world had ever seen.
Marc Marquez is a force to be reckoned with in the premier class. He won 13 of the 18 races in 2014, taking the title over Rossi by a landslide. He is in pole position every race. He’s also, more often than not, out of control – raised on modern machinery with all of its electronic aids, and he uses them to his advantage.
Twenty years ago, on the old bikes, Marquez would have had a very short career. But this isn’t twenty years ago. Even still, he crashes a lot. He essentially either wins the race or crashes out of it.
His racecraft, the strategy of blocking and passing opponents, is sort of poorly developed for a rider of his skill level. Many of his passes are made by physically barrelling into the other rider. He individually has been a part of more contact incidents than the rest of MotoGP history combined. But once he barrels into and past his rivals, if they remain upright, they can’t keep up. He’s significantly faster than any other rider on the grid – than any other rider, ever.
After two straight titles, Marquez was now king of MotoGP, while Rossi (13 years older than the volatile Spaniard) was in the foreign position of being the challenger.
Yet, in 2015 the young Marquez threw away the title by the seventh round, winning only one race while crashing out of three others. The Yamaha duo of Rossi and Lorenzo won the other 6 rounds to kick off the season, and their early consistency had all but mathematically eliminated Marquez from the championship fight. But the young Spaniard remained a huge factor.
After Lorenzo crashed out of a wet race in Misano, Rossi held a 23 point lead with only 5 rounds remaining. He was in a great position to summit the mountain again, to claim his 10th world championship. But Jorge, now a seasoned veteran and two time champion in his own right, fought back – finishing ahead of Rossi in 3 of the next 4 races.
I watched the Australian Grand Prix in my college dorm with old friends and new ones and some hallway transients. It wasn’t difficult to convince them to cheer for Rossi as he passed his way up the order. Lorenzo still finished ahead of Rossi in that race however, and he arrived at the final round – the omnipresent Valencia circuit – only 7 points behind Valentino. As long as Lorenzo finished two spots ahead of The Doctor, he would be champion again.
But Rossi gave his masterpiece at Valencia, in the Grand Prix that devout MotoGP fans will always remember as his crowning achievement. It was a beautifully symbolic representation of everything that Valentino meant to his fans considering the racing performance that he gave, and the fact that Lorenzo was crowned world champion before the race even began.
We have to rewind back a few weeks to understand the full scope of 2015’s Spanish-Italian war.
Marquez, after another two crashes in the summer races, had been totally eliminated from the title fight, but he still seemed keen to prevent Rossi from winning it.
Marquez and Rossi had had battles for victories earlier in the season, and traded some paint, as is required when sharing the racetrack with the young Spaniard, but their relationship seemed outwardly cordial. Things turned sour in the aforementioned rounds following Lorenzo’s fall in the rain in Italy, when Marquez began treating the two Yamaha teammates very differently.
Marquez is still, after all, by far the fastest rider, which made it puzzling when he refused to pass his compatriot Lorenzo at times in these home-stretch races. Valentino publicly criticized Marc after the Australian Grand Prix, the race that is surely still talked about in local dormitory RA meetings. Marquez remained several seconds behind Lorenzo’s lead position for that entire race, much further back than racers usually lurk when attempting to pressure their rivals into a mistake. The young speed demon was posting very pedestrian laptimes. In the meantime, Rossi was making his push towards the front, passing riders and eventually getting by the lackadaisical Marquez with three laps remaining. This signalled go-time for Marc, who quickly passed and gapped Rossi before easily running down and dispatching Lorenzo in first place.
Conspiracy theories abounded. Why didn’t Marquez just pass Lorenzo 10 laps ago and sail to clean victory? Was he trying to slow down the pack and protect his Spanish friend from the charging Rossi? Well then why did he end up passing Lorenzo at the end? Couldn’t make things too obvious?
None of it made sense, but then again, few things surrounding Marquez’s racing decisions ever did. Rossi cried foul play. I didn’t really see it, not until the next round in Malaysia.
There, the rising on and off track tension between Rossi and Marquez crescendoed. Early in the race, Lorenzo passed Marquez for second place, and Marc put up little fight, letting his fellow Spaniard dash away from him. A few laps later, Rossi followed suit and passed Marquez as well, now into third place behind his title opponent. The TV announcers couldn’t believe their eyes.
“I think this is the first time that I’ve ever seen Marc Marquez going backwards in a Grand Prix.”
But Marquez wouldn’t let Rossi off as easily as he did Lorenzo. He turned up his pace, and the two champions separated by multiple MotoGP generations began an aggressive duel. Marquez would late brake Rossi, then the Italian would slip inside of him again. Marc would return to cut across Valentino’s front wheel, and The Doctor would return the favor. With these games collectively slowing the two down, Lorenzo was free to pull away. It was the fiercest battle Marquez had been in all season. He usually just instantly gaps his competition.
After cutting inside of Marquez before a straightaway, Rossi turned around and gestured to Marc to knock it off. Marquez wasn’t racing to win – he was running escort for Lorenzo, who was by now several seconds ahead of this battle. Footage of Rossi’s garage revealed a nervous and anxious team, realizing what was happening.
Marquez’s assault continued, so Rossi decided to end the game. He cut inside of Marc on a corner and then took a vector straight towards the outside of the track. He was parking Marquez.
The two made contact. Marc crashed out for the 6th time this season. The Doctor carried on with his race, finishing in third place. Lorenzo took second.
Dorna (a Spanish company), the managing organization for MotoGP, gave Rossi the death penalty for muscling their prodigal son. In the next race, the final race of the season, Rossi would be forced to protect his 7 point championship lead while starting from last place – an impossible task with Lorenzo and his Spanish running mate starting at the front.
In the race, Lorenzo took the holeshot and led every lap. His wingman Marquez was in tow, protecting Jorge from any ambush that might come from the rear. Marquez didn’t attempt a single pass on Lorenzo in the 30 laps.
Therefore, Rossi was tasked with giving the fans an actual show. He passed 22 riders in 12 laps, a clinical showcase that made the origins of his nickname quite obvious. These were 22 of the best motorcycle riders in the world. Each of them would be heavily favored to win a title in any less prestigious motorcycle championship. But this was MotoGP, and The Doctor was slicing through them with effortless grace. By the time he arrived at the head of this group, the Spaniards were gone, over 10 seconds ahead of him with less than 20 laps remaining – an insurmountable lead. Jorge took the championship. Rossi was relegated to a quite symbolic solitary confinement for the rest of the race, pulling away from the pack but unable to catch the duo at the front.
And credit to Lorenzo, he avoided Rossi’s mistake from 2006. He kept it on two wheels at Valencia. As he orbited the track on the cool down lap, he seemed happy. He waved around his trademark flag. A couple fellow Spanish riders congratulated him. But all attention was on Rossi.
Immediately after crossing the finish line and having to swallow yet another title lost at Valencia, Rossi promptly switched into his charismatic mode and waved to all of his fans around the circuit, which were legion. By his body language, it was impossible to tell he had lost.
Valentino stopped on the grass in front of an especially yellow grandstand section and fans started climbing over the fence to surround the legend. Within seconds he was engulfed. No fan dared come near the newly crowned champion Lorenzo...Marquez could still strike at any time.
Every racer except the top two Spaniards made their way to Valentino on the cool down lap, grabbing his arm, shaking his hand, recounting the display they just witnessed as he caught up to and then pulled away from each of them.
“Didn’t know you could do that anymore you old surgeon bastard!”
That’s what I would have said, if I managed to hold myself back from just kissing him.
Nicky Hayden’s congratulation seemed the longest, as he hung around his friend and old sparring partner for a few moments. Hayden knew what Dorna had done to Rossi and so he repaid the kinship Valentino had shown to him 9 years earlier on the same track. Underneath his tinted visor, Rossi surely wore a look of appreciation for the enduring bonds of true respect.
As Valentino entered the pits, the mechanics and crew of every team except Lorenzo and Marquez’s stood at attention to congratulate him. There were hundreds of them. Pit lane was a 500 meter long rainbow of the best and brightest minds in motorcycle racing, bowing down to The Doctor. Lorenzo had accomplished his career’s greatest achievement that day – and no one cared. Rossi had won something much bigger.
I’m an intern at an aerospace company. Cubicle and everything. On the Sunday after my first week, Rossi crashed out of second place in the French Grand Prix following a hurried attempt to regain the race lead on the final lap. His ex-rival turned great friend Nicky Hayden had died three days earlier after being hit by a car while bicycling. With the entire paddock blanketed in a fractured grief, Rossi, speaker of the house, was prompted to say a few words about his companion during a press conference.
“Nicky is a great rider, a World Champion . . . but especially a very good guy.”
Rossi would honor Hayden with his 115th and final race victory four weeks later at the Dutch GP. He cites Hayden’s embrace in Valencia 2015 as one of his best memories.
I last saw Rossi in person at the Austin, Texas, round in 2018. Even back then, I was pretty sure that it would be the final time that I’d watch him race. I marvelled at seeing Mr. Yellow once more (the color is much more vibrant in real life), not because he ever did especially well at the races I had attended, but simply due to the fact that here before me again was indisputable evidence that he actually existed – that he and I could somehow be in the same place at the same time.
That day in Texas, I was every age. I was 9 years old, sweating my ass off and filled with jelly beans. I was 12, jumping and screaming in awe. I was 13, broken but healing. I was 15, begrudgingly learning to accept mortality. I was 18, starting the next life.
Rossi finished just off the podium in Austin. It was the last MotoGP race I paid attention to. I watch Catalunya 2009 twice a month.
Valentino is scheduled to race some cars and welcome his first child in the next year. He’ll also become the first former racer to own a MotoGP team, as his VR46 outfit will make its debut in the 1000cc division. After spending 25 years revolutionizing the industry, he’s due for some time off. Many of the current title contenders hail from Rossi’s Italian training academy. His retirement celebration included well wishes and video messages from the most accomplished actors, artists, and competitors in the world. If MotoGP continues its success and popularity into the future, it’s solely due to the fandom and infrastructure that The Doctor built.
Grazie Vale, forever.